While there have been previous books of Mennonite sermons, the present one is unique in the history of both the Franconia and Lancaster Mennonite Conferences of southeastern Pennsylvania. From our European beginnings, we had prized simplicity in all things. In the 1840s a progressive preacher had been criticized for preaching a "studied sermon," and a century later one of our deacons sitting behind a western preacher using notes, had tugged at the visitors coattail, muttering, "That is not done here." In fact, in the forty or fifty congregations of James Longacres Franconia Conference, pre-written words from the pulpit were generally not welcome before the mid twentieth century.
By 1992, however, when James came to the 275-year-old Salford Mennonite congregation near Harleysville, not only the surrounding farmscape but the expectations of the listeners themselves had changed. For half a century we had had young people going to college and beyond, and for the previous two decades we had had preaching by seminary-trained ministers. James himself had graduated from both Eastern Mennonite College and the graduate school of the Southern Baptist Baylor University. He had then honed his homiletic calling, beginning at his home congregation at the village of Bally at the northwest edge of the Franconia Conference area, and later at the larger congregation of Blooming Glen in Bucks County. His sense of the wider church was nurtured by his service as Conference Moderator and Coordinator.
Over his fifteen years at Salford, Jim shared the preaching task with a sequence of half a dozen assistants, including myself, who had shared the pulpit with Willis Miller for the previous twenty years. The present thoughts thus come from the experience of hearing Jim preach while seated behind him on the platform, and from a later seat among the congregation. From both perspectives I can bear testimony to the seriousness with which Jim approached this ministry.
Amid our increasingly generic suburban patterns, we heard sermonic echoes of a rural childhood, youth and beginning ministry at Bally. With our pastor remaining a part-time farmer on a family homestead, we may have been the last local congregation to hear preaching that reflected the hands-on relation with the crops and heifers and farm auctions that flavored all our lives half a century ago. At the same time, Jims service as chair of the board of our denominational Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary at Elkhart, Indiana, and his evident reading of his New York Times set his words in the context of the broader picture of both church and world.
We who listened for fifteen years will easily recall a favorite phrase, the themes of the faith. In fact Jims sermons, seldom dwelling on process, procedure, or strategy, were always theme-oriented. He could not help exclaiming how "rich," "deep" and "broad" these themes are.
Next to that word came the repeated reminder that we were dealing with a "text." It was Jims joy to let the ancient Word speak. He reads the letter carefully but listens beyond it to the canon-broad "music" of Scripture. What was humorously said of an old Franconia bishop"He had one textthe whole Bible"could be said in appreciation of Jims range. A further compliment to the same rustic church servant applies equally to Jims preaching: Er is beim Watt gebliwwe"He stuck by the Word."
Jim preaches a full gospel: the news of divine love that transforms both the personal and the social life of those who accept it. The substantial old issues are here in current expressions.
Theres a special awareness too, of being a preacher at the threshold between an earlier Plain Peoples sobriety and todays freer and multicultural attitudes. As Jim put it, it could sometimes feel necessary in his preaching at Salford to "slip by" both the "accumulated prejudices" of past Mennonite tribal life and their opposite, the wider "societys bias against religious conviction." The tone may thus be non-judgmental, as the pastor in the preacher searches for "the softest language [he can] think of" without watering down the gospel. A familiar note is that of a gentle questioning: "Could it be?" or "Might it just be?" or "Have you ever noticed?" or "Have you ever imagined?" But true preaching is not about merely making hearers feel good about themselves. When exhorting Christians that are touchy about an authoritarian past, Jim reminds them frankly that the household of faith is to be "an uncommon people."
These sermons continually stress sensing the great Gospel themes in the small venues. The sermon titles are already reminders of this urge: "One of the smaller clans"; "In a place like Woxall"; "You never know." The other side of that small-great equation is a reiterated joy in the abundance, the superabundancethe plenitudeof Gods grace in both Creation and Redemption. Of course it takes faith to accept the evidence. This is demonstrated in the way these sermons already celebrate, in lifting up the dream, the joy of fulfillment.
The thirty-two sermons in this book are taken from a corpus of more than five hundred digitally preserved manuscripts. The first and last ones are the actual first and last of the fifteen years at Salford. Reading them out of context of the series they came in of course affects the focus of the experience. And certainly, reading a sermon is not the same as hearing it while sitting among other listeners. The humorous inflections, the interjections, the interaction with the congregation, the recent congregational "moments" that have affected the atmosphereare all missing. On the other hand, reading one sermon at a time can make it seem like just walking into a church to hear the Word for that day. Taken in at the readers own meditative pace, sermons such as these can make inspiring devotional reading.
Because the preaching task was taken so seriously by this pastor, the Salford congregation has found it fitting, at James Longacres retirement, to preserve a portion of its harvest. This is done both in appreciation for the preacher, and out of a desire to share with friends, Christian or otherwise, both locally and far beyond Salford Mennonite Church, the benefit of his heart-felt homiletic nurturing of our faith in Jesus Christ.
John L. Ruth
© 2008 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC